Since August, one issue has generated more headlines here in Bolivia than any other: The Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, which was debated and passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (aka, the parliament) in late September.
The remarkably short Law 045 is the Bolivian equivalent of more than a generation of civil rights law in the United States. It bans discrimination by public officials and private businessmen, criminalizes verbal and physical aggressions, charters educational efforts on discrimination, creates a national commission on issues of discrimination, and imposes sanctions on the media for circulating “racist ideas.” The scope of the law is broad, including discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, age, sexual orientation, disability, and pregnancy, among other statuses. A such, it is parallel to American laws from the 1948 integration of the Armed Forces to the 1965 Civil Rights Act to the yet-to-be-passed Employment Non-Discrimination.
So, it would not be shocking if wide range of controversies had emerged over the manifold implications of the law. But this has not occurred. One single controversy, however, has risen to national prominence.
Two articles of the proposed legislation, Articles 16 and 23, have been roundly criticized by the mainstream, privately-owned press. Article 16 makes publications subject to economic fines and even closure for circulating racist ideas. And Article 23 removes any special immunity for members of the press from prosecution under the law. The mainstream press has characterized the articles as the rebirth of a 1980s proposal for prior press censorship, known as the Ley de Mordaza (the Jaws Law, for its ability to crush the press). They led marches across the country as the law was being considered, and coordinated a nationwide protest by in which newspaper covers all read only: “Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy.”
As an (US) American, of course, these provisions are shocking. Our Voltaire (“I detest what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say it”)-to-American Civil Liberties Union tradition of free speech is, however, a globally extremely tolerant position. (I’ve written before about how our notion of the freedom of the press is, on the other hand, a highly restricted vision of public access to the media, essentially limited by press ownership.) Following the nightmares of World War II, the global human rights regime initiated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drew the line on free expression at racism and incitement to war, which it said should be prohibited. International conventions follow these lines by banning “racist incitement.” Germany bans Nazi parties, advocacy of and apology for genocide, and rallies by the racist right. Several other Latin American countries have restrictions on racist media which include prison terms, unlike the Bolivian law. Both the OAS president and the UN human rights representative who have visited in recent weeks have emphasized that the law is appropriate, although the line between racist incitement and free expression must be scrupulously drawn. They’ve also urged the private press to end their boycott of the rule-making process on the legislation.
Strangely, however, the American standard is irrelevant to the debate here. In three months, I have not heard or read a single defense of free *speech* as opposed to free *press* on these issues. No one is suggesting that criminalizing calling someone an “Indio de mierda” (“shitty Indian”) to their face is inappropriate. (Doing so in the United States would of course ignite a national firestorm over “thought police” and be overturned in short order by any competent Federal Court.) There has been a great deal of concern about whether the a TV station filming and disseminating that act would be liable to prosecution (the government regulations proposed on the issue now make it clear that such reporting of others’ speech will not be subject to sanction).
Aside from marches, the press and many media workers’ unions have used a one-day strike, hunger strikes in Santa Cruz, and an immense petition campaign to oppose the law, which sailed through the MAS-controlled parliament. On November 26, they submitted a sample selection of signatures to Vice President Álvaro García Linera. The press claims to have gathered one million signatures, although they are still being sent to a single place to be verified, and the eight books they handed over only come to some 32 thousand. Which brings us to the current impasse: while the new Constitution permits citizen initiatives as part Bolivian democracy, there is no enabling legislation yet to regulate the process. The press is depending on the moral weight of its gathered signatures (one million is a substantial portion of Bolivia’s 10.6 million inhabitants) to kickstart the initiative process. So far, the government seems resistant. And so, a policy controversy seems about to cross over to a crisis of democracy.
Meanwhile, the mainstream press is not the only voice on this issue. During the debate, a book was published on racism by the press over the last century in Bolivia. This racism runs up through the media’s overt collaboration with (really, rallying for) attacks on indigenous protesters in Cochabamba in January 2007 and Sucre in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The cocalero movement has declared itself on alert in defense of the law, and marched here in Cochabamba. And a stream of “alternative media” which includes indigenous radio producers, radical working-class publications, and (strangely given the name) workers in the government-owned media, has taken a distinct position calling for professional standards and arguing that racism and free expression are fundamentally different. They’ve also used the anti-racism law as an opportunity to argue for systematic coverage of indigenous issues and use of indigenous languages in the media.
For me, this storyline is a fascinating instance of public debate in the process of rights-making, an opportunity to see the shape of the Bolivian legislating process (very little of which takes place inside the walls of the Legislative Assembly), and another turn in the kaleidoscope of political alliances here in Bolivia. It’s also forcing me to reconsider (although not yet change) my ideas of what free expression is. I’ve conducted some interesting brief interviews with the alternative press on this, and hope to delve more as the story develops.